Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Bath Time

On the train to Bath, in disguise

Despite a long acquaintance with Bristol, I am far less familiar with its more upscale, tourist-infested, and smaller neighbour, Bath. I've been there, of course, but never felt inclined to stay any longer than necessary. Like, say, Oxford, you get the impression that beyond the historic town centre there is nothing of much interest for the non-resident that cannot just as easily be had at home. Bristol is, by comparison, much larger, multi-faceted, grimier, more diverse, and more diverting.

But, as I had to be in Bath on Saturday to deliver a shortlisted picture to this year's Bath Society of Artists Open Exhibition at the Victoria Gallery, we thought we'd make an afternoon of it and visit the Holburne Museum, which is hosting a touring exhibition of Tudor portraits from the National Portrait Gallery. So, for the first time, I crossed the famous Pulteney Bridge, and walked up Great Pulteney Street, which is wide and awesomely grand, and easy to imagine thronged with carriages and elegant Regency types looking for whatever passed for fun in those days. This undoubted architectural splendour with its Jane Austen-ish resonances is one of the main reasons tourists flock to Bath (although Austen herself hated the place, apparently). Bristol has Georgian architecture, too, but much of it was built by speculators looking for a quick profit, and is in a poor state of repair now.

I like Tudor portraiture – Holbein's drawings, especially – so it was disappointing to discover that this was a relatively small exhibition (just one modestly-sized room) and that many of the paintings (and nearly all of the Holbeins) were, in fact, later copies done by less skilful hands. Never mind, it was still worth the opportunity to get really close to some intricate work. Historical interest aside, the thing that can't help but strike you is that these painters – or rather, the patrons for such paintings, and the purposes for which they were intended – were far more interested in clothing, symbols of office, and bling than they were in actual faces, bodies, and hands. Women, especially, and Elizabeth I in particular, come off as shop-window mannequins draped in statement clothing, an impression not helped by the fading of certain red pigments over the centuries, leaving female faces and hands as just smooth, plaster-pale shapes. But those clothes! That bling! So intricately wrought, and so carefully and convincingly painted.

Henry VII

Elizabeth I

Some guy, probably a peasant

One thing I learned though: a phone is superb for use in the semi-dark and uneven illumination of gallery conditions. I've always found it a bit unreliable, trying to use a "proper" camera to photograph paintings in museums and galleries, hand-held, but the iPhone delivered every time. So I have made a mental note not to sneer at those odd folk assiduously photographing the entire contents of some museum with their phones, unless they keep getting in my way.

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